These days one can sense a palpable fear among Republicans that the 2012 presidential election is slipping through their fingers. Their constellation of concerns includes the (perceived) weaknesses of the two frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich; the increasing ferocity of their clash; the public’s antipathy toward Congress (including the GOP-controlled House); and a slight uptick in the economy (including a drop in the unemployment rate), which is redounding to the benefit of the incumbent. Barack Obama may be a lousy president, the argument goes, but he’s a very good campaigner.
It’s certainly true that the president is in better shape now than he was just this fall. His approval ratings have nudged up a bit. The country is less pessimistic than it was. And consumer confidence is the highest it’s been since last April. Still, the incumbent remains exceedingly vulnerable.
For example, the president’s Gallup approval-disapproval ratio is 43 percent to 49 percent, which would translate into a huge defeat for Obama on Election Day. His standing in a dozen key swing states is lower than his standing nationally. And there’s more. An Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll taken in December found that just 35 percent of whites say they approve of Obama’s performance. Among whites without a college education, fewer than one-third approve. And among college-educated white voters, who have generally been favorably disposed to Obama, just 39 percent say they approve. Even among college-educated white women, who gave Obama 52 percent of their votes in 2008, his approval rating has dropped to 42 percent.
The president is also near a low point with independents, with only 38 percent approving of his performance. Ronald Brownstein of National Journal points out that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped 14 percentage points from his 2008 level among independents; 12 percentage points among young adults (aged 18-29); 11 points among African Americans; 10 points among college-educated white women; and 7 points among families earning between $75,000 and $100,000.
In addition, only 28 percent said they expect Obama’s policies to increase the opportunity for them to get ahead; 37 percent say his agenda will diminish their opportunities. “That’s the biggest tilt toward the negative that the poll has ever recorded on this question,” according to Brownstein. When asked if they intend to vote for Obama, 39 percent said they were now inclined to, while 54 percent said they will definitely or probably back someone else.
As for the mood of the nation, the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that two-thirds (68 percent) say the country’s on the wrong track, 6 points higher than a year ago. Fewer than half as many, 30 percent, say it’s headed in the right direction. And on the most important polling question of all, the president’s handling of the economy, Obama has a dangerously low 41 percent approval rating. Only 9 percent of Americans see a strong economic recovery. Twice as many say they are worse off financially since Obama became president than say their situations have improved. And more than half the respondents—52 percent—say Obama has accomplished “not much” or “little or nothing” as president.
No historical comparison works perfectly, of course, but the situation we’re in resembles nothing so much as 1980, at least in this regard. By the fourth year of his presidency, the public had concluded that Jimmy Carter was a failed president. The economy was in very bad shape, his policies were unpopular, and the nation was in a funk.
The public’s verdict on Carter wasn’t impulsive or easy to undo. It was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable assessment based on his almost four years at the helm. As a result, most Americans were disposed to vote him out of office. The question was whether Ronald Reagan would provide enough of them sufficient reassurance to vote for him.
It wasn’t always clear he would. Many forget that Reagan was savagely attacked by Carter as a racist, a warmonger, and indifferent to the poor. Those attacks took their toll. Only nine days before the election, the Gallup organization showed Carter with a 3-point lead.
Then came the October 28, 1980, debate in Cleveland. It was on that stage that Reagan once and for all shattered Carter’s myth of Reagan. The Gipper gave a majority of Americans all the confidence they needed to vote for him, and they did, in an overwhelming fashion.
To be clear: There are important differences between Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, and the eventual Republican nominee, whoever he is, will be no Ronald Reagan. But where the 2012 race resembles the 1980 race is that the public, which still likes Obama personally for the most part, is very much inclined to vote him out of office. They believe he’s overmatched by events.
This doesn’t mean the GOP nominee will win the presidency in 2012. It only means he should.